Rahaab Allana
Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury The Place Where the Sun Has Another Name , 2019 Mixed-Media Installation

Installation view, Look, Stranger!, Serendipity Arts Festival, 2019 Photograph: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar Courtesy Serendipity Arts Foundation

Rahaab Allana

“It is always salutary to witness new information and new epistemic paradigms fragmenting our illusions of omniscience. And it is both a pleasure and a privilege to offer this broad, flexible, eloquent new cartography of lens-based practices and their complex historical and current relationships to the wider orbit of “South Asian” visual cultures. The cross-section of lens-based practices presented here takes us towards reassessed readings and understandings of “South Asia” and, regardless of physical location, complicates what it might mean to identify (or not) as “South Asian”, through revisiting and re-envisioning our historical entanglements, re-suturing our frayed common genealogies, affirming our allied arts practices in convergence across aesthetic platforms,” acquaints us Rahaab Allana to Unframed: Discovering Image Practices in South Asia, an exhaustive new book on South Asia-oriented lens-based media.

Below, read more from our conversation with Rahaab about the creation of the exceptional book.

Could you acquaint us with the inception of Unframed? What led you towards its creation?
Unframed took root as an idea soon after I finished an MA in Art History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (UK) in the late 90s/early 2000. I was a student, eager to learn about inter-relationship between art, location, borders. I was briefly working at the National Gallery of Modern Art, and realised the need for comparative learning – the experience of mounting exhibitions, researching collections and theorising new possibilities for creative practices more generally. 

Some years later, I started working with the Alkazi Collection of Photography, assisting editors and authors in realising books based on this private collection. An incredible, insightful experience, I was also exploring ways to piece multiple narratives together based on caches of visual material. Focusing largely on subcontinental histories, I soon realised the need for culturally mapping the South Asian region, one that in photography history was tied by way of history writing and through itinerant documentarians. Many books were acquired, and many articles read, in order to piece this complex narrative, but there was much to be done, personally to experience a complex and heady past. After several years working in the archive with colleagues and peers, I was drawn to realise an initiative called PIX (enterpix.in), with a group of like-minded and extremely enterprising image-makers.

Supported wholeheartedly by the Goethe Insitut but also other cultural institutes in Delhi including the Japan Foundation, Pro Helvetia and Institut Francais en Inde; it gave the PIX team an opportunity to travel to Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Iran to explore possible cultural exchanges and connections through photography. At the same time, it made me aware of the need for a compendium that could help those newly initiated into the field of art writing or image-making. I too was eager to find such a publication. I suppose the very unavailability of such a volume compelled me to consider making one. It took a decade to realise!

The last push towards this journey was the founding of ASAP/Art app, South Asia’s first app for young writers on South Asian Art supported by the Murthy Nayak Foundation. With short-form writing as its mainstay, the app brings together South Asia as a new formation. The app provoked me to further consider how the history of South Asian lens-based practices was the result of piecing together the complex spatial ties and varied cultural exchanges that have been taking place in our region since the birth of photography in the 19th century. Meta-histories cumulatively present us with significant, interdependent shifts in ways of seeing and in ways of being seen. The piecing together of Unframed reinforced my faith in informal micro-narratives of representation that draw on personal archives, community and family memorabilia and everyday objects so as to contribute to the recognition of image-making as perhaps the most pervasive form of public culture. 

Rahaab Allana Serendipity Arts Festival, 2019 Photograph: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar Courtesy Serendipity Arts Foundation

Assorted Photographs from Myanmar, c. 1950-1970 Gelatin Silver Prints Installation view, Look Strang

Serendipity Arts Festival, 2019 Photograph: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar Courtesy Serendipity Arts Foundation

Could you give us a glimpse into your editorial process behind this book? What did your research and curatorial process look like?
Coming from Art History, I was keen to think about the relationship between evolving forms of visual arts/culture practices, into which photography was embedded or through which it was able to reach a mass audience over the last one hundred and seventy five years since its very invention. The Reader therefore takes on the challenge of organising the chapters into five distinct, thematic sections. These broadly include how the genre of photography has been, viewed as both documentary and fine art/ lyrical and evidentiary; ways in which images have circulated and led to new cultural exchanges; how images make us think about representation as a social and political commentary; how curation has led to new methodologies; and eventually, what are the various strands of knowledge that germinate from images in our present. 

Interconnections within these fields reminds us, as “South Asians”, of our need to empathetically deploy our cultural narratives in order to freely move into and out of one another’s imaginaries – an act of creative solidarity all the more crucial since for most of us it is difficult, or even impossible, to make the actual journeys. Given the publication was meant to invite a diverse readership, as is with the case with Readers, the texts were selections from previous seminal publications which were updated, newly commissioned pieces that were envisioned, as well as interviews conducted with practitioners/curators from South Asia in the last couple of years. All of these were then copy-edited over an extensive period with the immense support of an editorial team comprising Smriti Vohra, Hitanshi Chopra and Jennifer Biswas, as well as the editorial team of HarperCollins at the final stages. I also need to mention that the designer, Ishan Khosla did a wonderful job of making this rather bulky volume come across as very approachable.

Rahaab Allana

Open-Air Screenings During Beskop Tshechu , Thimphu, Bhutan, 2013 Photograph: Kelzang Dorjee Courtes

Did the creation of this book come with roadblocks? Could you tell us about the challenges?
There are many challenges that come to the fore during the process of conceptualising, compiling, commissioning and editing a book, any book. Apart from the very idea of selecting texts that speak to the present socio-cultural moment, it’s also about seeking to adequately cover the range of subjects that come within focus while investigating, or as the book’s subtitle indicates, ‘discovering’ South Asia.

For me the first task was to orient the book, based on certain curatorial experiences I had had or been privy to within the arts community in South Asia, which was a little different from the contemporary network associated with Biennales, or even the gallery world. Though both have been instrumental and, in some cases, foundational to our approach to art, I was equally keen to consider public-facing institutions/initiatives such as museums or symposia through university departments that have shaped the discourse for many over the years. This was the first conceptual manoeuvre within the book, to be able to focus on para-academic and academic impulses that have collectively infused the arts sphere.

The second challenge was to be able to rethink the entire canon of lens-based media and how it has been framed over the last century. Given many new directions have been taken in post-colonial discourse and de-colonial politics, the effort was to have an open-ended and inclusive consideration of practice, without claiming or proposing one stance with respect to how we must view or perceive images today. Hence ‘unframed’ proposes that we need to be cautionary, both in our approach and in our assessment of how images come into being, how they affect us and how we must be circumspect in our analysis of them.

And to sum up another provocation, was to seek continuity with a project that had so many community driven imperatives that underwrote the shifting terrain of images, old and new media interventions, trans-continental collaborations. Hence, this publication needed to be imagined as a multi-volume series, that will imaginably have co-edited manifestations in the future. This volume therefore has no claims to being comprehensive, or representative, even while it commits to reflecting the profoundly symbiotic colonial-postcolonial tensions that have seared their imprint into subcontinental consciousness as well as subcontinental territory.

Rahaab Allana R: Sonam Choekyi Lama, Irina Giri, Keepa Maskey From multimedia project Islands of our Bodies , 2019 Courtesy the artists

L: Sukanya Ghosh Untitled , 2018 Mixed Media and Archival Photographs on Paper, 11 x 14 inches Court

R: Sonam Choekyi Lama, Irina Giri, Keepa Maskey From multimedia project Islands of our Bodies , 2019 Courtesy the artists

What do you hope the readers take away from this astoundingly relevant work?
It has been a fascinating and open-ended archival, curatorial and editorial experience to track how various modes of vintage/contemporary photography have remained faithful to the arduous mission of authentically rendering our subcontinental realities, translating our physical experiences into visual encounters. This challenge continues to intensify, given the extent to which images may be productively and ethically produced/deployed, but equally, may be abused in a volatile “post-truth” mass media/social media ethos. However, it is always rewarding to confirm, through traditional and experimental practice/production, through deliberation, as well as through established and innovative scholarship, how far and how audaciously we have pivoted from the imperial mode of perceiving the world, even though this position always needs to be fought for. 

Lastly, what are you working on next?
At the moment, I am preparing for the launch of this volume at the Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi together with a co-chaired symposium with Roobina Karode, as well as at universities in the United States, including Chicago, Cornell and Columbia. In Columbia, it is not only for the Unframed edition, but additionally for another volume co-published by the Alkazi Collection on the Bombay Talkies, the first large-scale production house for Indian cinema established in the 1930s by Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai. The volume has been edited by Prof. Debashree Mukherjee. Apart from these symposia, am focusing on my next edited volume on photography in India after the 90s, to be co-published by Tulika Books (Delhi) and West Heavens (Shanghai). It will be due later in the year.

Words Nidhi Verma
Date 23-03-2023